Rutgers researchers have created a device that can swiftly analyse microbes in oceans, revealing the health of these organisms – too tiny to be seen by the naked eye – and their response to threats to their ecosystems.

The tool screens for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and analyses algae that live in coral reefs.

The tool determines how microbes and cells respond to environmental stresses, such as pollution and changes in temperature or water salinity.

“This is very important for environmental biology, given the effects of climate change and other stressors on the health of microorganisms, such as algae that form harmful blooms, in the ecosystem,” said senior author Mehdi Javanmard.

“Our goal was to develop a novel way of assessing cell health that did not rely on using expensive and complex genomic tools,” said co-senior author Debashish Bhattacharya. “Being able to assess and understand the status of cells, without having to send samples back to the lab, can allow the identification of threatened ecosystems based on a ‘stress index’ for their inhabitants.”

The tool can quickly reveal whether a cell is stressed, robust or unaffected by environmental conditions. Microbes pass one by one through a micro-channel, thinner than the diameter of a human hair. Impedance, or the amount an electrical field in the tool is perturbed when a cell passes through the channel, is measured. Impedance varies among cells in a population, reflecting their size and physiological state, both of which provide important readouts of health.

The scientists plan to use the tool to screen for antibiotic resistance in different bacteria and algae that live in symbiosis with coral reefs, which will help give them a better idea of coral health.

Their work is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Photo credit: Jianye Sui

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